Former President Bill Clinton is now recovering from surgery to remove some nasty scar tissue left by his previous open-heart surgery.
I was stunned a while back at the announcement that he needed open heart surgery in the first place. He always seemed so young and healthy, positively boyish (not to mention immature). In fact, he is pretty young, at least for heart disease.
Then I started thinking, and I realized there was another reason the news had shocked me so much. I'd gotten used to Presidents living to a ripe old age. And I mean old age--really, really old age. When I look at all of the Presidents who were alive at some point during my lifetime, the extent of their longevity seems pretty astounding.
Here's a list of those Presidents, including each one's age at death (or present age, if still alive):
Kennedy (doesn't count, for obvious reasons)
Johnson (64--the sole exception to the longevity rule)
Ford (91 and going strong--have you seen the man?)
Carter (still fighting off attack rabbits at 80)
GHW Bush (at 80, he appears healthier than traveling companion Clinton)
Clinton ('nuff said)
It's hard to get a good comparison to the general population, or especially to the population of rich white men (the population from which most of these people--Harry Truman excepted, since although he was white he wasn't rich--seem to have come). But if you take a look at average life expectancy tables for comparison, the life expectancy of a white male child born in 1930 was 59.7, and that of one born in 2001 is 75. So, something definitely seems to be going on here with all these mega-elderly ex-Presidents.
So, what gives? Presidents are certainly under far more stress than the average person, and stress is supposed to undermine health, so why all this longevity?
I've got two theories. Neither of them is all that great, but here they are:
a) There's something about the arduous process of campaigning for and then being President that winnows out the weak. Not only do only the strong survive, but only the strong can get elected President in the first place. A person has to have the constitution of an ox. Johnson, one of the longevity exceptions, was an exception in this regard, too, since he was known to have had heart disease way before he ever became President, having had his first heart attack--a serious one--in his forties. But remember, Johnson was picked by Kennedy as a running mate and was catapulted into the Presidency by Kennedy's assassination. Perhaps he wasn't subject to the usual winnowing process, and perhaps the circumstances under which he became President made for unusual stress.
b) There's some research indicating that stress-related illnesses are more common in people with high-stress/low-control jobs rather than high-stress/high-control jobs, although it's a complex issue and the jury is still out on that. But if it is true that being in control helps to reduce stress, then the Presidency would certainly seem to be a job that qualifies.
Get well, President Clinton, and keep these longevity stats going strong!